SWANVILLE, Maine — Swan Lake, the second-largest lake in Waldo County, looms over the town of Swanville. Houses and camps line its shores, and in the summers, it’s lively with swimmers and boaters. People picnic at Swan Lake State Park at the northern end, and fish off the dam at the southern outlet.
Bill Baxter, the treasurer of the Swan Lake Association, doesn’t want those things to change. That’s why he’s hoping that Swanville voters will come out in force this weekend and support the town’s plan to buy the dam from Goose River Hydro Inc., a small hydroelectric power company that owns both it and the water rights to the lake.
“There’s very little reason not to make the purchase now,” Baxter said. “It establishes the consistency of the lake level, and also the consistency of the town, for the future.”
If residents don’t vote to buy the dam, the consequences could be severe, according to town officials, who said that the lake itself is in jeopardy. Along with the recreational opportunities the lake provides, its shorefront properties contribute the lion’s share of property taxes in Swanville.
But the water level is controlled by the small dam at the southern outlet. When Goose River Hydro’s license was not renewed by federal regulators earlier this year, the dam’s future was in question. One of the company’s co-owners approached town officials in May to say they were considering selling the dam to an out-of-state investor who might remove it, according to Swanville First Selectman Cindy Boguen.
“If the dam was removed it would change the entire lake and lakefront property,” she said.
Without a dam, the lower part of the 3-mile long lake would revert back to a river or stream, and the upper part of the lake would revert back to a pond.
“All the lake owners would be affected,” Baxter said. “Many properties that were waterfront would not be waterfront at all. Many of the properties at the northern end would be waterview instead of waterfront.”
If that happened, Swanville would face a “sudden and severe” loss in property tax revenue, according to town officials, with local taxes going up precipitously as a result.
The questions around the dam put the town in a bind — but they’re far from the only community in the state to face this issue, according to Portland attorney Scott Anderson, who has worked on the decommissioning and removal of dams.
“For many towns, preserving these impoundments is very, very important,” he said, adding that if they do ultimately purchase the dam, they are responsible for maintaining the safety of the structures. “This is a very common situation in Maine, when towns either own these former hydro-power facilities or are trying to acquire them.”
Efforts to speak with Nicholas Cabral, one of the owners of Goose River Hydro, were not successful. Cabral and Nicholas Berner were Maine Maritime Academy classmates in 2013 when they purchased Goose River Hydro, banking that with hard work and ingenuity they could get the company’s three power plants and five dams up and running again.
Before that, Belfast residents Larry and Cathy Gleeson operated the small hydro power project for more than 30 years. The project, which needed infrastructure work, was put on the market after Larry Gleeson’s death in 2009.
Cabral and Berner b egan generating electricity in 2014, and four years later began the complicated task of obtaining relicensing for the project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But in April, the Division of Hydropower Licensing dismissed the company’s application, saying it failed to provide plans to address public safety, repairs and erosion concerns among other issues.
“Goose River Hydro states that the reason it is unable to provide this information is that it needs funding that cannot be obtained until a license is issued for the project,” state licensing officials said in a letter to the company. “[The company’s] inability to provide us with the requested information due to inadequate funding leaves us in the untenable position of not having the information that we need to make a licensing decision.”
Baxter and others who own property around the lake said that in recent years, they’ve sometimes been frustrated with the hydro company. The town and the company have a long-standing agreement regarding the water level in the lake, but he said that levels have fluctuated beyond it.
“These dam owners have not really lived up to the agreement,” he said. “It has caused some very low levels [of water] and some concern … the real problem has been lack of attention to controlling the flow, at least in my opinion.”
Baxter said the idea of Swanville owning and managing the dam makes a lot of sense to him.
“It’s not a difficult job at all,” he said. “The gates may need some mechanical attention, but once they’re working, it’s a once-a-week kind of thing. You can go and see what the level is and adjust accordingly. It’s not rocket science.”
Boguen said the owners of Goose River Hydro have agreed to sell the dam to the town for $150,000, contingent on getting approval from Swanville voters. The money will be taken from unappropriated funds, she said, and won’t result in property tax increases. Forty four people came to an informational meeting earlier this month at the town hall parking lot, and she has also had many phone calls from residents who are in favor of the purchase.
“People agree it is the best way to protect our lake,” she said.
The vote to purchase the Swan Lake dam will be 10 a.m. Saturday at the town hall parking lot.